Oct 1, 2009

Academic Success and Socio-Economic Status in Singapore

ST Oct 1, 2009
Kids can excel with right strategy, says parent from working class

I READ with interest the news and views regarding whether housing type and financial wealth affect how well students do academically, and would like to offer my perspective.

I have two children of average academic ability pursuing the Integrated Programme (IP), and I am a working mother living in an HDB flat in the heartland.

What is important in getting children to excel is a combination of parents:

- Showing an interest in learning how the education system works;
- Thinking and proactively developing a strategy and path for their children; and
- Devoting time and effort to realise that strategy.

Let me illustrate.

Getting into a primary school of choice: Since getting into a primary school of choice depends, among other things, on distance of home from school, parents can select a home (including HDB flats) within the 1km mark. Choosing a primary school affiliated to a good secondary school, or a Special Assistance Plan school where students are drilled in Higher Chinese from a young age, will enhance the child's chances of doing well in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Getting into a secondary school of choice: Unless your child is very academically inclined and likely to score 255 points or more in the PSLE to get into an IP school, think what other options are available to get him admitted, apart from the academic route. Consider the co-curricular activity (CCA) route for Direct School Admission - sports, arts and so on.

Do you need to be wealthy and living in private property to take this route? Not necessarily. For example, if you want your child to offer competitive swimming at his secondary school, you can sign him up for the competitive swimming programme that is taught at public swimming pools. The monthly fee is in the low two digits and the quality of training is high.

If your child is not inclined towards sports, there are other avenues, such as uniformed groups or robotics. These are all CCAs offered in primary school and cost next to nothing to join.

What I want to say is this - do not be hung up on the idea that you must be wealthy or live in private property for your child to succeed in school. If you have this mindset and rub it off on your children, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am a heartlander from the working class, my children are not academically very bright, but they managed to get into the IP through the strategy I have outlined. If my children can do it, there are many others out there who can too.

This is my note of encouragement to all of you.

Lim Chiu Mei (Ms)

She studied the system, she learned the rules and it looks like she's played the game well, so far anyway. Congratulations to Chiu Mei and her children. A good strategy is indeed important for doing well in school (not to mention in life generally).

Of course, the richer you are, the easier it is, to follow through with a good strategy.

For example, Chiu Mei said that to get a child into a good primary school, the parents can "select a home (including HDB flats) within the 1km mark" of the school. Chiu Mei was referring to the school admissions rules that give higher priority to children who live near the school.

However, most of Singapore's top primary schools are located in exclusive neighbourhoods. For example, Nanyang Primary School and Raffles Girl Primary School are at Bukit Timah. Most homes in that area are big bungalows and high-end condominiums - not HDB flats.

It seems that Chiu Mei also went for the Direct Special Admissions strategy. This is a relatively new scheme. Primary 6 students who demonstrate high standards in some activity (for example, music or sports) can use this to try to gain a place in a good secondary school, even before taking their PSLE exams.

Each of the DSA schools is free to set its own criteria under the scheme. For example, if a particular secondary school wishes to establish a niche in music, it can decide to accept students wcho excel in choral singing, playing the violin etc. From Chiu Mei's letter, we can guess that her children secured their places in an IP school, by virtue of their swimming prowess.

The whole idea behind the DSA was to encourage all-rounded students (as opposed to students who excel only in their studies). In principle, I think that the DSA is a good idea. How it may backfire is that eventually, young kids will be pressured to excel not just in their academic studies, but in their chosen hobby.

My son is in Primary One this year. For his school CCA, he's doing Speech & Drama. Unlike most CCAs in my own day, his Speech & Drama activity follows a proper, structured programme. In fact, next month my son will be taking his first exam in Speech & Drama. An external examiner from Trinity-Guildhall in London will be flying into Singapore to conduct the exam.

If my son sticks with Speech & Drama for the next four or five years, he can expect to take more exams and collect his certificates. That might eventually help him to gain DSA admission into a good secondary school. Once he's in, I guess that there will be some "moral obligation" for him to represent the school in activities like debating or drama.

I feel that all of this is worthwhile, if my son continues to enjoy Speech & Drama. Currently, he does. I hope that it stays that way.

It may be relevant to point out that I have to pay extra money for my son to take part in Speech & Drama, and a separate set of fees for him to take the exams. While I can easily afford this money, not all HDB heartlanders will be able to do the same.

In this sense, the DSA scheme does disadvantage kids from poorer families. These are the families which don't have the spare cash to send the child for ballet classes, golf lessons or piano lessons.


Anonymous said...

I used to think that better primary schools are essential, until I found out how some of the top primary schools were able to consistently produce top PSLE students.

I understand that there is a gifted program streaming exam in P4, in which the top 2% of each cohort is discovered and encouraged to switch to one of the top primary schools. Little wonder that kids from these schools can perform so well at PSLE.

As such, I do not see the need to fuss over pri sch selection. I will let my kid discover their own talents, be it academic or non-academic, in a neighbourhood pri sch. If they are within top 10% at PSLE, then they will go to the top sec sch. Else it may be better to help nurture their non-academic talents, if any.

Anonymous said...

Ms Lim seems to be assuming that just being in a good/top school alone equates to excelling in the system, which may not necessarily be true.

I work at an independent IP school which takes in numerous students through the DSA scheme, CCA appeals, etc.

True, the DSA provides an avenue for the less academically inclined / less exam-smart students to enter the so-called elite schools. This not only gives them the opportunity to experience a stimulating academic environment, it also provides generally positive peer influence and the branding will do the student some good eventually.

However, I've also seen an increasing number of students struggle in such an environment. In the first place, these students may not be academically-inclined and they face additional pressure to keep up with their peers. Furthermore, as they were roped in because of their sport, they are obliged to spend a lot of time on their CCA and it goes without saying that they have to represent the school in the sport.

At the same time, they are struggling in their academics and need to spend extra time on it. This stretches them on both fronts, and sometimes teachers are so exasperated that they have requested for these students to be dropped from the school team so that they could focus more on their studies. This is not going to happen, since the students were brought in to win medals and trophies for the school.

It is not that these teachers expect too much, but a number of these students face the possibility of graduating from school without a full O or A level cert. If that happens, could it be said that the student has wasted his/her years in the school?

My take is that the DSA scheme benefits the school much more than the students. Students are still young and would clamour for the 'elite' schools when given opportunities. However, would they have done better in an academic environment that are more suited to their learning needs?

Anonymous said...

At different ages and stages of a child's life in Singapore, they are judged based on different things.

When in Primary school, we look at what school they are in and how they are doing in the studies and CCAs.

Same goes for Secondary School and then JC.

After that we look at what course they are doing in Uni.

But after that, it's how much they are earning.

And we all know that academic results are poor indications of how financially successful people will be in the future.

Ms Lim is thinking her kids did well (and in turn she did well for her kids) just based on the criteria we use to judge kids.

But the future? The only time when this is almost certain is if the child gets one of those swanky govt scholarships which make them scholars rather than farmers.

But how interesting that at age 19 we can decided that this person has all the attributes we want in a CEO of a big time corporation.

Only time I can remember such a system was perhaps in the ancient scholars of the Imperial Court of China.

But I guess that's Singapore for you.

From first hand experience I can tell you that doing well in school as a kid has literally NOTHING to do with how rich you are gonna be. And face it, everyone's just aiming to be filthy rich in Singapore.

Give you one example. There are two brothers.

Dr Tan Min Han


Tan Min Liang

Guess which one was the top scorer in his PSLE exam?

Of the two who do you think is more "successful"?

Anonymous said...

Do you know that there are some folks who think nothing of spending $4k per month renting an apartment (and leaving it empty) just to get into a "good" primary school?

And feels that it is worth every penny.
Not to ention the learning lab, British Councils and shishidas ...

These days meritocracy is too narrowly defined as doing well in school.


Ah Wang

Anonymous said...

Anon October 1, 2009 10:43 PM

The days where u could rise up with little education (and poor family background, against all odds) are fading. As inequality increases, more must become slaves so that the few at the top can prosper.

Meritocracy is becoming who knows you and where u come from. And what is perception (of potential) but an illusion?

It is inevitable.
John Calvin could be right after all.

Ah Wang

Anders Brink said...


You mentioned those two brothers. Neither one is more "successful" than the other. At some point, the KPI are suibjective, and it is up to the individual to decide. In fact, if you know something about how the world changes and evolves, you will, as I have discovered, hold off on deciding.

BTW, if you want to mention names, it helps not to be anonymous.

AC said...

Well, it is not the costly environment and schools per se, but the networking exposure that your child gets from being associated with the future top echelons of society. Surely it's better to have your child know the future head of civil service or something close. That's meritocracy Singapore-style.

Anonymous said...

IP school DSA scheme, CCA appeals ...etc etc.
Which school teaches basic moral values nowsaday?

For parent, why do we send our kid to school? To learn or to get rich or to get "face"?
The world richest man don't even complete his university education.
One of the best scientist that the world have ever seem got thrown out of school not once but twice.

I wonder.....

Anonymous said...

'Not academically bright but they managed to get into the IP....'

Congatulations, but what is important is whether her children can keep up the pace if they are so-called 'not academically bright'?

Is that an important consideration, or is it not? Isn't she putting undue pressure on her children? Fair enough if her children are academically inclined.

I guess the answer is irrelevant from her point of view.

Mr Wang Says So said...

People who think that the IP is for the "academically bright" should go check out what it really means.

What it really means is that the IP students are at no risk of doing badly in their O-levels.

That is because they are completely exempt from the O-levels. :D

Anonymous said...

MONEY more Money will ensure your kid goes to school of your choice. why,enrichment class, etc are not cheap. Most average income household in staying HDB are not able to afford it unless its a one child family. BY pri 3 you must pay extra attention to yr child so that he maintain his score at above level for him to go to a sap or ip school. My son now sec 1 in a ip school thru dsa(his psle result is luckily good enought for entry to this school)thru his interest in music.Spend quite a bit in music course fees since Pri 2 to Pri 6 till now.When you see adverts for PSLE program be it Maths or "Preparing your child for PSLE" in Straits Times, these course free in thousand of dollars, so average joe cant afford it.

Anonymous said...

I just can't believe this Mr. Wang. Your writeup about exams and certificates just exemplifies what is wrong with the Singapore educational system. CCAs should not be an extension of classwork. Doing this just turns CCA into another class. I still laugh when I remember the ST article a few years ago about the Singapore girl with the top score in the Cambridge English exams outside the UK. And she proudly stated she saw no need to read books. She studied for the exams and that is it. It is because of this overriding emphasis on exams vs. learning that we do not see the creativity bubble up.

Until Singapore education moves away from this emphasis on exams, certificates, etc., it will not produce visionaries, evangelists, and entrepreneurs.

Did Bill Gates focus on collecting certificates? Did Michael Dell? Did Einstein? Did Mdm Curie? Did LKY take exams in drama and speech making (regardless of what we think about him, he is a great orator)? Did Obama do CCA in Speech and take exams?

I feel sorry for your child if at his/her young age, she has to focus on exams. There is no meritocracy in this country--the only thing we measure is the ability to do well on exams and that is idiocy. It has nothing to do with real life.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang @ 2.55pm,

True, IP means through train without having to sit for the O levels. But the schools that offer IP are ALL the top/SAP schools; so it means that students applying to these IP schools need to meet their cutoff scores. Unless thru DSA like GEP or CCA.

I had a fren whose son is now in Year 4 (sec 4) in an IP school in Bt Timah. He got in thru his PSLE score of 258. By Year 2, his parents were getting calls that he was doing poorly. The boy did not want to be transferrred out to a neighbourhood school and so in Year 3 he was put in a class with other students who are "not so good" academically.

The school is preparing them for the O levels this month. He's to leave after the O levels and will probably go on to polytechnic next year.

YH said...

Hi mr wang,
firstly i would like to respond to your comment about the relations between IP and being academically bright. Yes, the students are exempt from the o'levels and are only required to take the a'level. however it is the assurance in their academic ability that they are exempt from o'lvl. if they do badly or fail in the a'lvl, they can only reply on their PSLE. IP should only be for those who are confident that their child will do well at the a'lvl. from my point of view, the IP actually restricts a student's choices. there is no way to exit the programme to purse other avenues of education( like NAFA, Laselle, poly) as they do not have an o'lvl certificate.

I think it is unwise to simply claim that exams has nothing to do with life. exams can be seen as the end product of route learning. but in my view, it is the process that matters. i use to ask myself why do i learn so many subjects when i will probably not require them. I now realise that it is not the content that matters, it is the training of the mind that is essential. exams requires clear goals, determination and hard work, the same would apply to much that we do in life.if one were to study for the sake of certs and studying, it is a sad outcome. but if one were to view exams as another challenge in life to hone your mental skills and determination, it is a desirable outcome. ability to do well in exams have no relation to real life? i believe otherwise.

ILMA said...

I pity her children, being publicly called out as "academically not bright". Imagine how the snobs in their schools are gonna treat them now. Well done, madam, well done.

Anonymous said...

Rich folks send their kids to Eton and Harrow in UK or to Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover in US. Eton/Harrow costs S$68,000 a year; Phillips Exeter/Andover costs S$54,000 a year.

So what if your kids got into IP? They are still going to grow up into insurance salesmen and live in HDB flats.

The rich always have an edge, especially in Singapore.

SMS said...

Rote learning, tution, exam smart, CCA, creativity study, learning how to joke ...... you sure the kids are not overloaded. .... look at the statistics of those that need psychiatric help.

I had the rare opportunity of interviewing someone who has the all the potential of a scholar .... A* in subjects, attended top primary, secondary and junior college. ... But just couldn't pass his final year examination in our local university. After a number of attempts, he gave up as his parents are getting old. He had push or was pushed too hard. Now he is suffering mentally.

Are we looking at our children as a machine or a person? Did you push because you want to achieve in him what you could not do yourself?

Spare them the mental torture, if he goes mad, you as the parent are to be blamed !!!!

SMS said...

Talking about "your child is not academically bright".

I know of someone whose kid was told by the teacher "you better give up" close to the PSLE. The teacher was even attending the same church as my friend. What a disgrace and a bad testimony for this church? Imagine if the kid decide to end it there and then.

Anonymous said...

i agree with Anon 5.02pm 3rd oct.

IP is unfortunately something that is only valuable in singapore itself and holds no value in the competition of being attractive to international companies. IP is just a Singaporean thing and differs from an IB. but then again, only the rich can afford IB locally or internationally. so... it is undeniable that socio-economic status is a fairly important factor on academic success.

Anonymous said...

I came from RI in the pre- independant school days.

I am sadden that we have taken the IP route cos it does not allow for late bloomers to be a part of the RI family.

Previously you have a good chance of going in due to 'meritocracy' if you studied real hard.

Now if you are not in the 'GEP' programme in Pri 3, chances are really limited. (interesting if Govt could provide figs)

If you are in a neighbourhood sec school, chances of going into RJC is also non-existant, compared to pre-independant days. (you gotta fight RI / RGS, wow)

A sad development. Can we ever wish this things is dismantled? And I understnad VJC is trying for IP status, and making VS stakeholders (students, alumni, teachers, parents) very very uncomfortable.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I have no place in this discussion, as I was from the GEP. But the emphasis on grades, being in good schools, and being academically bright by everyone else truly baffles me. Being academically bright, scoring well, being in a good school is absolutely no indicator of future success. I know fellow GEP students who have killed themselves, dropped out of school, started taking drugs and cutting themselves. Yes, they are brilliant - but so what?

In fact, none of the GEP students I have ever met really impressed me very much (myself included). Yes, there are government scholars aplenty. Yes, there are judges and doctors and teachers and lawyers and engineers and researchers. Are we the dregs of society? Probably not. But are we shining shooting stars? Nope.

What matters, in my humble opinion, is character. The most truly impressive people I have met, their foremost trait was not intelligence (although they were not stupid) or an awe-inspiring academic background, but a one-of-a-kind character. Drive. Passion. Fortitude. People with a spark in their eyes. People with the will to change the world, in some way.

I would go so far as to say that, in some way, being intelligent and having a solid academic background actually ruins you. If you're good at studies, it means you are good - maybe too good - at sitting back and thinking, rather than taking action. It could mean that you're too willing to stick to the conventional methods of doing things, to play it safe. That you are not, unfortunately, one to forge your own path, and therefore are never going to join the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who dared to be different, and reaped the rewards.

The Outer Layer said...

It is not the schools which matter. It is how our top planners are so unhinged from each other in strategies, and economic outlook which is creating all the stress and costs spirals.

You see, what Singapore has now is a split. A split in many types of careers. But our tunnel past vision about "limited resources" still stands in the way of many successful scholars who fail to understand new dynamics.

Providing new courses for the new economy is badly unavailable. You don't see MOE doing anything AFTER a top level FOREIGN panel told them about 2 years ago to DEVELOP post graduate scene in Singapore. Our Universities are still un undergraduate factory mode. Talk about renaming Marina Bay to Marina Bay.

So many things which must be reviewed, stays in the shadows of daily grind of the administrator waiting for 5pm.

And wasn't it Peter Chen who about 8 years ago still going on merging Primary Schools? Now we have competition and stress of volunteer work despite more time needed to compete for jobs with cheap foreign imports who can skip back after taking us for a ride.

What's taking us so long to realise the numbers are rising, and we do not have enough schools and teachers?

Who is doing the monitoring? The trending? Do these guys even deserve their pay?

Talents indeed.

Anonymous said...

Anon October 5, 2009 3:41 PM

Bill Gates owes (at least a significant part of) his success to his mother.

Thats meritocracy.

Unfortunately, it sounds like u do not have powerful parents.

Therefore ur role is (assuming ur suvive the education system) is to believe that you are the best of best and you could change the world ... but not rock the boat too much.

Anonymous said...

I am a school teacher, and I can tell you that the success of any school system depends critically on the quality of the students, and not the quality of the school's programs or strategies.

I have seen splendid teaching plans go totally wrong due to indifferent students. I have seen students benefit immensely from simple learning plans. The difference lies mainly in the quality of the students; whether they are willing to learn, whether they have proper upbringing from home.

Which all hinges on how good their parents are.

I think good parenting from home plays a critical role in academic success; where parents teach children values like the importance of hard work, discipline, integrity, etc etc.

I came from a good school, and there was hardly any fantastic IP plan or CCA program or anything of the sort. Yet, most of us did well academically. My school has won many medals in the sporting and performing arts scenes.

I think good parenting is still the key. Parents should not abdicate parenting to the TV or to the school.

Anonymous said...

Does MOE have foresight at all? 3 failures that can be pointed out:-

1) As far as I could remember, class size has never reduced over the years. 40 years ago, it was 40 per class, now it is still 40 per class

2) The need for double session. Why? Because the simple fact is, there is NOT ENOUGH schools. And it is so silly that school bus operators are controlling the starting school time because they do not want to miss earning from ferrying the adult workers to office. We end up with kids waking up at 5am - 6am in order to be on time for the school bus.

I don't think most other developed countries is in such situation. My friend was shocked that the kids here have to wake up at such unearthly hour, even earlier than normal working adults.

3) related to the above is that MOE has been expanding schools to become impersonal mega schools with population in the 2000s. As opposed to building more number of smaller schools with a more personal environment conducive for learning. In the old days, schools were like 700-800 students?

Anonymous said...

I think good parenting is still the key. Parents should not abdicate parenting to the TV or to the school.

You are correct. Until we start calculating the time the parents have and the amount of resources they need to put the kids through school.

The kind of competition for work and "performance" with an ever tilting pay scale towards top management for "keeping costs down".

The ever increasing fees, need for music, speech and drama, language courses for kids.

The ever depressing calls to "realistic, pro-business" salaries, and "productivity" by our leaders and scholars who themselves seek top salaries to "lead by example".

The ever shrinking HDB size, but increasing price, excluding furniture, broadband, electricity & utilities (also ever increasing) bills.

I'm just surprised anyone want to have kids any more!

Anonymous said...

I am Anon October 5, 3.41pm. I'm baffled by your statement. What does meritocracy have to do with having a powerful mother, and doesn't that support my position anyway that intelligence / academic grades are not the key to success? And do you mean to say that the role of academically successful children is to "believe that you are the best of best and you could change the world ... but not rock the boat too much"? Why do they need to believe that at all?

Anonymous said...

Students make or break the school. Period.

The reputation of the school has everything to do with the quality of the student, and very little with the strategy of the school, the school's education program (IP, IB or Olevels), CCA program.

Even the teachers don't make the key difference. For every one failure-turn-success story, how many more failure students remain as failures?

Parents understand this simple concept. Which is why so many parents are adamant in wanting their kids to go to the elite schools, which provide a better learning environment. Even in the neighbhourhood schools, most parents would want their kids to enter the better classes, instead of languishing in the tail-end classes.

If you think your elite school is really good, why not get them to enroll a cohort of students who are academically weak and with family problems?

If the elite schools can turn around most of these students, I will gladly eat my words!

Anonymous said...

Dear Readers of Mr Wang's excellent blog,

What an inhuman system of education your ruling elite
(of engineers, economists and military brass) have devised!

Similar results can be achieved in more humane ways e.g. as through the basic education system of Finland and the higher education system of the USA.

Phua Kai Lit
(sympathetic Malaysian observer who worked for a number of years back in the 1990s in Singapore)

sandycharm said...

Wow.. The extent parents do to send their kids to good schools because it is the most likely route to success.
It's also admirable that she's so willing to share her strategy.
However, will going to a good school make the kids enjoy school? Afterall, school is the seat of learning and should be a place where academic passion is ignited and sustained. It all boils down to the aims of education. Perhaps if all Miss Lim Chiu Mei wanted was to arm her children with a good cert and give them a head start in an economic race, then she is doing great.

Anonymous said...

If your child does well in school, you tend to praise the Singapore Education System. Likewise, if your child is only an average student or below, you start nitpicking our education system. Not everyone is good in studies. Just let them develop other forms of talent if any.

garlzz said...

To Anonymus 5:02pm Oct 3

You have every right to your own opinion however I must inform you that I am a double degree holder AND an insurance salesman.

Though you did not outrightly call my profession undesirable, the implications are there.

This post is off tangent from the topic but I write this in the hope you do not smear an entire profession with one stroke of your brush.



garlzz said...

Dear Sandycharm and anonymous 7:43am Oct 7

I believe your views are both valid.

However what makes a reputable school desirable is the culture of the school. The unwritten and unspoken rules are often more powerful than those being legislated in black and white.

I don't think every student with family problems will do well in a reputable school, but they will be less inclined to create trouble in school simply because most of the students are too busy studying to be up to severe mischief.

Conversely if you send a standard student from a standard family to a school notorious for juvenile delinquency, I can assure you the student will be a bully victim at best and a gangster at worst.

Going to a good school cannot guarantee interest in the student. What it can do is give the student a better environment and make high expectations the norm for the student. This helps the student to reach their potential.

I'm not saying reputable schools are perfect and neighbourhood schools are worthless. I'm simply stating the reality of the situation in our schools.

Thanks and regards,